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A Legacy of Readers

Next governor should work for student gains in basic skill

September 20, 1998

A generation of children who read well should be a legacy of the next governor of California. The state needs a strong, focused leader who will build on the efforts of Republican Gov. Pete Wilson and the Democratic-controlled Legislature, continuing the statewide momentum for school reform and early literacy.

As our continuing series, "Reading: The First Skill," reports today, both gubernatorial candidates have plenty to say about public education. Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren emphasizes safe schools; who is against safe schools? Lt. Gov. Gray Davis endorses higher standards without mentioning the higher academic standards recently adopted by the state. Can either candidate take us beyond the obvious?

The next governor should continue California's reading initiative, a broad campaign launched by Wilson in 1996 to improve reading instruction in public schools. Its results so far include an unprecedented and bipartisan package of legislation on class-size reduction, teacher training and new funds for primary-grade reading books. Success for more children, and this state, depends on completing the journey California has barely begun.

Any prescription for reading improvement must also include accountability. Teachers, principals, superintendents, school boards, textbook publishers, teacher training programs and research universities all need to be held responsible for research-based, effective instruction that works. This state must give educators the training, classroom environment and materials to do the job. In return, we must be unafraid to demand student achievement we can be proud of. That achievement starts with reading.

California's sharp and broad decline in reading scores, most notably on the 1994 national assessment test, got noticed. Sacramento recommitted public schools to the traditional phonics method of reading instruction and reduced the heavy emphasis on the whole-language method. Gov. Wilson also led in implementing an idea that the Legislature had been tossing around for years--reducing class sizes in kindergarten through third grade. The state funded new textbooks that stress fundamental skills, provided more library books, improved teacher training and lengthened the school year. These investments need time to take root.

California needs better-trained teachers. Emergency-credentialed teachers require intensive, continuing training and mentoring. All elementary teachers need more reading instruction courses. Secondary teachers also would benefit from training to diagnose and correct the reading problems that resulted from the state's failed reliance on the whole-language method. The dip in 10th-grade reading scores on the recent statewide assessment test reveals the depth of reading difficulties in high school.

Classroom teachers need more on-the-job training, tightly focused on fundamental skills. The state should triple the three days a year funded to improve teaching skills and pay for replacement teachers. In other states, like Virginia, substitute teachers replace regular teachers who are away at staff development, so students are not given a holiday when they should be in school learning. In addition, California needs a longer school day.

The next governor should use his bully pulpit to demand improvement. When Texas business leaders worried about the poor quality of public education, they went to the legislature and said, "Do something." The result--with solid cooperation from the teachers union--has been steady progress. Texas students now consistently outscore California pupils with similar demographics on national standardized tests.

In Texas schools, all students are tested against the state's rigorous standards. When scores go up, schools are rewarded. When they go down, state-appointed experts take over and, as a last but necessary consequence, principals and teachers are sometimes dismissed. This tough accountability system, supported by the most thorough statewide testing program in the nation, should provide a model for a California system.

California now requires a statewide assessment test, which will be linked to new, rigorous academic standards. The test would be more useful if the results included uniform, detailed reporting for every student, school and district. The state, not the individual school districts, should negotiate contracts with the standardized test publisher to get the best and most information for the lowest price.

Public education--which has to start with reading--is getting plenty of attention from the gubernatorial candidates, who know a top public priority when they see one. The candidates should now tell us how they will carry through on the challenges ahead: insisting on excellence, paying good educators what they're worth and ridding the system of people who aren't doing the job. There's no time left for obvious bromides.

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